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Utah's campaign to keep the Greater sage grouse off the endangered species list will likely get another $2 million cash infusion, despite questions about transparency with the way a private contractor is spending the money he got last year.
Last July, the State Department of Natural Resources hired Bountiful attorney Ryan Benson, an anti-wolf activist associated with the politically connected Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, to lead Utah's fight against listing the grouse. Pricetag: $2 million.
Benson is expected to file reports, prepare advertising and coordinate lobbying in Washington, D.C. So far, he has provided one sage grouse report to the state.
Nonetheless, Utah lawmakers are poised to double the money at Benson's disposal with another $2 million this year.
Some lawmakers worry about documenting Benson's spending.
"There is concern about accountability and the benefit we are receiving," Rep. Brian Greene, R-Pleasant Grove, told an appropriations subcommittee last month, after arguing unsuccessfully for greater disclosure.
The one-time expenditure is one among many in a spending bill awaiting final action in the closing hours of the session.
State officials hope to convince Congress to intervene in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to list Greater sage grouse, which is in decline across its range in 10 western states.
The Service is under court order to decide whether to propose a listing by Sept. 15, but Utah wants an additional 10 years to show its sage grouse conservation plan can save habitat and reverse the bird's decline.
Benson, who established the nonprofit Big Game Forever in 2011 to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money to lobby Congress and policymakers to de-list the gray wolf, has been enlisted to lead Utah's sage grouse fight.
Citing Benson's "success" in the wolf fight which has yet to result in a nationwide de-listing for the maligned predator natural resources bosses chose Big Game Forever for the sage grouse contract over bids from firms with far more experience in sage grouse matters.
Now lawmakers want to invest another $2 million in Big Game Forever, arguing the firm is needed to show policymakers that sage grouse are in good hands in Utah.
"We are putting together a good program that shows we are protecting sage grouse," said Sen. Keven Van Tassell, R-Vernal.
But Greene and other members of the natural resources appropriations subcommittee want to know how the money currently under contract is being spent.
"We worry that wine, women, and song in D.C. is involved. When I hear lobbying money, it makes me very nervous," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City. "I don't know how we exclude the executive appropriations committee from a detailed listing of where this money is going."
But his legislative colleagues voted down an amendment that would have required Benson to provide quarterly reports "detailing efforts, results and general expenditures."
"It's like giving the playbook to the opposing team," said Orangeville Republican Sen. David Hinkins. "We should have some confidentiality of what our game is."
State leaders believe the money will be well spent if it prevents a sage grouse listing because they say the resulting restrictions on grazing and energy development would deal a $20 billion blow to the state's economy and prevent the creation of up to 250,000 jobs.
But conservationists blast Utah's efforts to meddle politically in a decision-making process that is supposed to be based on science.
"If Utah is really interested in preventing a listing, they would be spending their money on sage grouse protection instead of wasting money on lobbyists," said Erik Molvar, who heads WildEarth Guardians' Sagebrush Sea Campaign. "They are too busy protecting the commercial interests that are busily carving up sage grouse habitat."